Why you should use academic research in content design

Sarah Winters, , User research

I’m going to make a sweeping generalisation here.

I’m guessing a lot of people in the web world first think of analytics and user testing when gathering ‘data’ to improve a website.

That’s totally understandable. Both disciplines are very important when you are looking at your audience. But I find another area invaluable for data: academic research.

Is it really useful data?

You may think of academic research as dry, dusty old tomes containing prose Chaucer would be proud of, and in some cases, you would be right. But not in all cases, and in content design, academic research is data you can rely on.

Generally these scientists have sat in labs for years testing the tiniest things.

“But it’s not usability testing!” I hear you cry. “All audiences are different and you are not testing the right thing!”

Is that going through your head right now?

Let me see if I can convince you (if you need convincing).

It shows us the 'why'

As content people, we take basics for granted. For example, lab research shows us:

  • people only read 20 to 28% of a page,
  • for every 100 words you put on a page, cognitive load is increased,
  • eyes move in an f-shaped pattern.

Just these 3 basic facts are critical to anyone writing for the internet. We take this into account when we are writing. But sometimes, we don’t know why other than ‘users prefer it’.

Academic research can help you answer the ‘why’.

100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know by Susan Weinschenk looks at how people read. Research was carried out on how the brain works and takes in information. That might seem like a step too far but it gives you tips on how to convert that into your content design.

For example, it shows how:

  • headings are critical,
  • caps are slower to read because we are not used to them, not that they are harder to read,
  • the font you choose affects what people perceive about text.

These sorts of facts can help you write in a way that gets your users to easily understand your copy.

It teaches you about high- and low-frequency words

I’ve already blogged about finding your audience's vocabulary and that’s critical to making content user-centric. But there’s academic research that can tell you why certain words are easier to understand.

For example, did you know your audience is likely to read a high frequency word (so a word that you see often in language like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘children’ etc) 100 milliseconds faster than a low frequency word? (Like ‘cove’ etc.) You’re probably wondering what 100 milliseconds has got to do with anything, it’s a tiny amount of time.

Just imagine you are sitting on a train, reception is dodgy, you have had a rubbish day at work and all you want to know is a single short piece of information. It’s not going to take long to get through the text. But it would be a tiny bit faster if someone used a high-frequency word instead of a low-frequency word.

Now imagine you are sitting on a train, reception is dodgy, you have had a rubbish day at work and you don’t read so well. Your eyes hurt, the letters swim in front of you and you are trying to get through this text. 100 milliseconds isn’t much to most.

But what if it makes your information harder to get across for no real reason?

Especially if you have used a lot of low-frequency words and added some technical terms for good measure. You probably wouldn’t have lost anything by removing the jargon and using high-frequency words. You’ve just got in the way and made it unnecessarily laborious by using low-frequency terms though.

It makes you a better content designer

With academic research, you are a finding out how the brain works – the basics of reading. That can tell us loads about our audience and all audiences. In the Western, left-to-right reading world, our brain processing happens in similar ways and academics can help us understand that.

I don’t sit down and think ‘Ooo 100 milliseconds extra there, Sarah. Is it worth it?’ I do think ‘is that a common word? Is there another one I can use that won’t harm the sentence or meaning? Do I want to use that word?’.

As a content designer, it is a choice and I make it based on the tone I want to set and the vocabulary my audience will find easy to understand.

As always, I want them to take away what I am saying , not how I am saying it.

If you are not sure about something, how to write it or why lab testing came out the way it did – I’d suggest looking at academic research. You’ll find the ‘what to do’ in lab testing; you’ll find the ‘why it happens’ in research.

Links to interesting research

(Well, I think it’s interesting.)

Some of the links don’t lead to academic research but it’s still research and it might be useful.

This article from Scientific American by Ferris Jbar, called ‘The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens’ has some interesting thoughts. It has links to research about the way humans behave and take information.

Preliminary Experiments in the Physiology and Psychology of Reading by Edmund B. Huey. This gives you information about the physical and psychological effects of reading. It’s really old but fascinating.

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